Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
As if the fast-food industry doesn't have enough headaches, now it's got a new one: It's getting too slow.
Never mind that its first name is "fast." The amount of time that consumers are spending waiting in lines at fast-food drive-thru windows is getting longer, not shorter, mostly due to the growing complexity of new products that the major fast-food chains are selling.
This, according to 2013 Drive-Thru Performance Study conducted for QSR Magazine, a fast-food industry trade publication. The study, to be released today, also says that industry giant McDonald's posted its slowest-ever drive-thru time in the 15-year history of the drive-thru study - requiring an average 189.5 seconds for the typical drive-thru customer to go from order to pickup. That's roughly nine seconds longer than the industry average, reports the study conducted this summer by Insula Research.
The importance of the drive-thru business to the $299 billion fast-food industry cannot be overstated. Many major chains do 60% to 70% of their business at the drive-thru. That's even nudged so-called fast-casual chains like Panera to move into the drive-thru arena and increase the number of drive-thrus it opens.
The industry issue that's slowing down service: menu bloat. Fast food's ongoing market-share battle is forcing big chains to roll out more premium and more complex products more often. "The operational pressures to assemble those items are slowing down the drive-thru," says Sam Oches, editor of QSR.
For example, Taco Bell told QSR that its Cantina Bell bowls sometimes have up to 12 ingredients - which are much more complex to assemble than, say, a Doritos Locos Taco.
There's another factor at work, too: accuracy.
"The one thing that angers a customer most is to not get the right food," says Oches. "It's possible to be too fast."
Consumers get so upset when they find the wrong kind of burger - or the wrong toppings - in their bags, that many fast-food sellers are either slowing down the process or adding additional order-accuracy checks to assure correct orders. Some chains are "doubling down" on order accuracy, says Oches.
"Customers will be patient if you give them hot, accurate orders," says Oches.
Even then, 2013 has not been the industry's best year in order accuracy, either. Order accuracy for drive-thru meals for the industry was at 87.2% this year vs. 88.8% last year. The chain ranking highest in accuracy: Chick-fil-A at 91.6%. The lowest was Burger King at 82.3%.
But Chick-fil-A customers paid for that industry-leading accuracy at the other end - they waited in the drive-thru line longer than anyone this year: 203.9 seconds, on average. By comparison, Wendy's was the fastest drive-thru, at an average 133.6 seconds, says Oches.
But even Wendy's has seen some increase in the time it takes to fill an order. Way back in 2003, Wendy's posted the industry's best-ever average order time of 116 seconds.
No one's since come close to that, says Oches. Not even Wendy's.